Ajudge has dropped Eagle Point School District board members and Superintendent Cynda Rickert — but not the district itself — from a federal lawsuit filed by its employee union alleging free speech law violations during a strike in 2012.
The action comes as the district continues to feel the effects of the strike, including the resignations this year of nearly two-dozen teachers.
In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Medford during the employee strike, the Eagle Point Education Association and then-President Dave Carrell allege that Rickert, School Board members and the district itself violated the 340-member union's free speech rights by enacting resolutions on picketing and the use of signs and banners on district property.
District Judge Owen Panner on July 1 upheld Judge Mark Clark's recommendation that Rickert, along with board members Mark Bateman, Ted Dole, Scott Grissom, Jim Mannenbach and Mary Ann Olsen, be excused from the lawsuit. But the suit against the district continues, Panner ruled.
The strike included more than 250 of the union members. It was the largest strike in Oregon since 1987.
Citing ongoing litigation, Eagle Point School District Human Resources Director Allen Barber has declined to discuss the strike. But he issued a statement at the time that the actions of the district were meant to keep schools open, safe and stable.
Rickert also stated at the time of the strike that the measures taken were recommended by the Oregon School Boards Association for districts facing a state of emergency, such as a strike.
The lawsuit asks for the court to declare the district's actions unconstitutional, and for the district to reimburse the union for court fees and any other relief determined by the court for incidents that occurred during the eight-day strike that began on May 7, 2012.
The incidents cited in the suit include a student being asked to park off-campus because her car had a pro-union sign in it. Also, a district-hired security personnel disrupted picketing near Shady Cove Elementary, according to the complaint. The suit further alleges the board approved resolutions just before the strike to prohibit picketing and the use of pro-union signs and banners on district property, actions the lawsuit claims were unconstitutional.
The administration asked striking members of the union to stay off district property during the strike, and prohibited them from using district email accounts, according to a memo from the district's human resources director at the time, Mike Remick.
Daniel Burdis, a consultant for the Oregon Education Association, told the Mail Tribune at the time of the strike that the district must have realized its limitations on free speech were illegal. The lawsuit was designed to ensure that similar incidents wouldn't happen in the future, he said.
The School Board in 2012 voted 3-2 in support of resolutions to ban picketing and signs on school property, with board members Mark Bateman and Jim Mannenbach voting against each resolution. Bateman was censured by the board in June for allegedly acting as a participant in the strike.
Shortly after the strike, the board also voted to approve a policy limiting the on- and off-campus actions of employees when using social-networking websites, a policy presented by the Oregon School Boards Association that Burdis said many other districts rejected.
The wounds from the strike clearly have not fully healed, with outgoing teachers accusing the district of engaging in punitive actions against teachers who participated in the strike.
Tim Rouhier is retiring from the district after teaching there for 30 years. Rouhier said last week that he is one of 23 teachers leaving Eagle Point High School this year. All but one teacher leaving participated in the strike, he said.
Rouhier said he believes "the mass exodus" of experienced, qualified teachers is happening in many cases because of retaliatory actions for their participation in the strike. Teachers who had previously received positive reviews are now being given negative evaluations, he said.
"The climate and atmosphere is not good for staff," Rouhier said.
Barber disputed Rouhier's allegations that the district has targeted toward those who participated in the strike.
"There is no retaliatory atmosphere in our district from the administration," Barber said. "There have been zero complaints filed by teachers about administrators being hostile. In fact, there were no grievances filed by the teachers's union during the past school year."
Barber said the district currently employs about 200 teachers. The district has hired 21 new teachers, and currently has 7.5 remaining teacher openings, he said.
Barber said exit interviews are given to some teachers, but not all. But he has spoken personally to most of the teachers who have resigned, Barber said.
"I can tell you that their comments have been overwhelmingly positive," Barber said. "However, I believe there are a few teachers that are leaving because they are unhappy with their situation. I wish them the best of luck, and I am very excited about the new teachers we have hired."
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.